Archive | September 2009

Friendships with skeptics (by Mojo)

Recently, in the course of a heated debate about science and evolutionary biology a “friend” let slip some of his true feelings about me (Mojo) and my atheism/skepticism.  In his defence, he was upset and may not have known what exactly he was saying, but as you may have already guessed, I no longer consider this person a friend as I once did.

Chances are, if you read this blog, you are a skeptic or critical thinker and you may even be an atheist.  If this is the case, you may do well to remember this article as a bit of a warning.  If you are not a skeptic but have friends that are, maybe this article will help enlighten you to what it is like for them and perhaps increase your tolerance to their way of life.  Either way, this is purely a cathartic experience for me to get a few things off my chest.

1.  We skeptics cannot pretend to be fence-sitters for your sake.  Keep this in mind when you broach “controversial” topics like evolution, UFOs or alternative medicines.  It would be a lie to everyone involved if skeptics simply shrugged away catagorically wrong statements of fact as if they didn’t care.  If you’re not prepared to go all-in with these types of discussions, don’t bring it up.

2.  Try to ignore your personal feelings when discussing science.  If you are going to discuss these things and don’t like being told that you’re wrong, again, back away slowly.  A skeptic usually doesn’t treat any topic as a sacred cow.  If you are personally invested in this topic for any reason, you should remember that as a scientist, your skeptic friend will debate the topic… not you.  If he/she discounts your claim as false, try to keep it there and don’t take it as a personal attack.

3.  Not everything is a matter of opinion.  Very often, people who realize they have inadvertently opened a proverbial can of worms that is a skeptical debate will attempt to end the conversation with statements like, “That’s just my opinion” or “Well that’s just what I beleive”.  We have all learned from a very young age that most people will not challenge beliefs and opinions because everyone is entitled to their own.  Matters of science and the nature of reality however, are not matters of opinion.  Skeptics MUST have evidence to say something is real or not.  We have a hard time understanding how people can turn statements like “Big foot is real” into a matter of opinion.  As such, don’t expect to get off the hook that easily with a skeptic.  In all likliehood, a skeptic will brush that comment aside and get back to the topic at hand.


Check It! Bigfoot Special

Bigfoot, as imagined by a Canadian artist.

Image via Wikipedia

Hey, guys. Tonight’s installment concerns that well-known and suspiciously elusive cryptid of worldwide fame and folklore, and a classic skeptical topic that by rights should have been long debunked since the 1970s, the inspiration for the title character of Harry and the Hendersons, as well as that for the Marvel Comics character Sasquatch, the critter also known as the Yeti, the Yowie, the Almasty, the Mapinguari, and a certain snow man of the Himalayas, like the title of that hideous little abortion of a movie…Abominable.

Aside from the fact that this furry critter has been the subject of recent hoaxes, and failed expeditions to capture or study it, it still has an enthusiastic following, with Bigfoot ‘research’ groups around the country disavowing each other and promoting themselves as ‘the real deal.’ Well, as amusing as rambling on like this can be for my troythuluness, I’ll get to the point now and just present the links and URLs…enjoy.

  • …a blog post on the above on, of course, with Loren Coleman trying to save face from the whole embarrassing episode…
  • …a link to the Bigfoot Field Researcher’s Organization site, at claiming exclusive scientific legitimacy for itself…

Accepting “I Don’t Know” As An Answer

There is something that all of us do if we aren’t careful, mostly stemming from a deep discomfort of not having an immediate explanation or answer to something we want to know, but don’t–the argument from ignorance–a fallacy of thought by which we draw a conclusion not from data, but from a lack of data, from what we don’t know, a conclusion which more often than not turns out to be false when properly investigated.

One of the first things I had to learn as a skeptic was a tolerance for ambiguity, habits of thought by which I could say to myself “It’s okay to not have an answer for such-and-such a question right now.” It’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know…yet.”

There’s a great many people who are just terrified by the thought of not knowing everything with conclusive surety, even when that conclusiveness is wrong. So many people go to great lengths to convince themselves that they do, in fact, know what that strange light in the sky is, or what that creaking noise in the house late at night is, when they really don’t.

This is particularly true of those with a tendency to claim a event as being impossible to explain by natural or normal causes, and thus dismissing such causes prematurely, especially that dual bugaboo of paranormal and fringe-science advocates, coincidence and statistical noise.

A common argument is stated something like “X is so unlikely as to not possibly be due to the laws of chance(or nature)!”(read; the claimant’s understanding of those laws). In fact, it would be even more improbable that unusual coincidences don’t occur as often as they do, in accordance with the Law of Truly Large Numbers. For example, in a city of say, ten million people, one should by chance alone expect ten 1-in-1,000,000 coincidences to happen each day.

This and other seemingly counterintuitive results of statistics are well within the bounds of the laws of chance, with no need to invoke anything paranormal. Not yet.

Statistical correlation does not by necessity imply causation, nor scientific importance. For example, if I wanted to and was willing to juggle the numbers, I could draw a correlation between someone’s eye color and their IQ, but there would be no causative or scientific significance to it.

Yes, it’s tempting to think you have all the answers at your fingertips, but the I think that the best knowledge anybody can have is an awareness of their own ignorance and the admission that they, like anyone else, can be mistaken in their conclusions when shown evidence to that effect.

In my experience, I haven’t noticed any tendency to jump to conclusions in lieu of evidence in the more seasoned and better-known skeptics, though I have found it among some novice skeptics and many of the paranormalists I’ve met.

It’s the same whether we try to definitively explain a strange light in the moors as either a ghost or as swamp-gas without enough information–we are committing the same error either way.

Probabilistic, uncertain thinking and a tolerance for it can be difficult at first, but it gets easier with time and practice, becoming second nature. One can only learn when no longer convinced that one already knows without sound reason to think so. It’s how good science is done.

A wise man knows his own ignorance, while a fool knows everything.

Why Should I Fear Hell?

Why should I believe in, and therefore fear, anyone’s personal concept of an unpleasant existence in the hereafter? To paraphrase the title of this post, why should I be afraid of hell? Whether it involves nothing ‘worse’ than eternal separation from the Infinite, or nastier, forever burning in a proverbial lake of fire, being digested for all eternity in the gullet of Zotharr the lizard-god, or being stuck in an infinite loop of birth and rebirth on the Karmic wheel, for evidential reasons alone I have little sound reason to believe that anybody’s version of hell, whatever it’s called and however it’s described, is real, and therefore something that I should be afraid of.

Like anyone, what I don’t believe in, I don’t fear. If I didn’t believe because I feared, by that logic I should be terrified of elves, boojums, jabberwocks, and the boogieman, because I don’t believe in those either. Sadly, this is not the case. It would be ludicrous to say that I’m afraid of something that just isn’t part of my reality equation. No one has ever produced convincing evidence that these places or conditions, or their Creators, actually exist.

To date, no one has gone there and brought back a demon’s pitchfork made of unambiguously netherworldly metal. No one has ever returned from hell with a piece of brimstone from a pit with an isotopic sulfur content unlike any found in the mundane world. I find questionable the idea that this unpleasant afterlife, no matter how it’s imagined really exists, on evidential grounds alone.

But let’s for once set that aside and consider the logical implications of a benevolent god, or gods, and the torture chambers of eternity they are said to have created for the ‘wicked,’ or ‘infidels’ and why this writer lacks any real concern for the safety of his soul thusly. Let’s examine some of the reasons that to me, the concept of hell is inconsistent with the notion of a truly loving, forgiving, and morally superior Embodiment of the Infinite.

There have been countless gods worshiped for as long as we have been human, all of them believed absolutely real in their own times and by their own followers. The fact that a religion is hundreds or even thousands of years old is no indication that it is the One True faith, either, even if it is still practiced today. The Babylonian and Sumerian religions religion and that of Sumer were the mainstream religions of their day, but both faded into relative obscurity over time, and are now practiced by, at most, small groups of modern neo-pagans if by anyone at all.

The classical Greek and Roman religions were similar in their status during their own age, and now claim only a handful of followers, again, mostly modern neo-pagans. Christianity is older than Islam, and Judaism older still, but the current-day extent and age of these so-called Abrahamic religions is no guarantee that any one of them is metaphysically more True than the others or to other major religions.

If the history of religions past is any indication, all will fade into obscurity, and none will show itself to have greater Truth than any other of its time, or thereafter. Hinduism and Buddhism in all their forms are older than any of the three Abrahamic faiths, yet none of these has held sway over even most of the world’s population either. This tells me that antiquity and popularity are no real measure of a religion’s actual truth value. We need better criteria for this. If we cannot correctly show which religion is true, and they can’t all be true, for their tenets contradict each other, how can we know whose god or gods are real?

And if we can’t determine that, how can we know whose hell to fear, and thus avoid?

With countless religions in the entire history of our species, it’s clearly futile to try them all on for size and pick the right one. One would spend forever, doing nothing else, not even sleeping, just trying to select the ‘correct’ religion, much less following them all. Clearly an impossible task. We could just settle with the religion our parents brought us up in, but that has problems too; What if we were raised in the ‘wrong’ religion?

Should I worry about having my soul devoured in the Outer Void by Azathoth because I was not fortunate enough to be raised a devout worshiper of Cthulhu? Should I fret about going to the Catholic hell for being brought up a Hindu? Or for that matter, should I concern myself about going to the Seventh-Day Adventist hell for being raised a good Catholic? These and similar questions present themselves. With no objective way to know which is the ‘right’ religion, how is it possible to choose and avoid damnation? It’s telling that only those who already believe in a religion consider it the True one.

A truly good god(and almost invariably, worshipers consider their gods not just good, but often supremely good, and therefore the Ultimate Moral Authority of the Universe,) would not intentionally create a place or condition of suffering that lasts for all eternity, just for not being up to snuff. Or worshiping the wrong gods by accident of being born into the wrong culture. Or questioning the faith. A morally superior being would not torment anyone forever for minor violations of code, or accidents of birth, or, if that being granted us the gift of Reason,(without making a mistake, and a perfect being cannot by definition make mistakes…)using it.

Such everlasting punishment would rightly be considered unjust by mere mortal standards alone, and to everyone I’ve asked, it is: one would expect a god to be more moral than we, not less. Such everlasting punishment with no parole or appeal would likely only be dealt out by at the very least an uncaring deity, certainly not the way most people view their religion’s divinity as the loving, ultimate power for Good.

Clearly, it is logically inconsistent to claim that a god, any god, is unconditionally loving, more moral, more forgiving, in short far better than we are across the board, and yet claim that this same divine Power would create a torture chamber to punish those who didn’t measure up to His (or Hers, or Its…)standards of conduct, accidents of birth into the wrong family, or using one’s own god-granted gifts, for an infinite length of time if at all. It makes no sense to me, and it’s a cop-out to say that this being ‘works in mysterious ways,’ or that I do not understand a ‘subtle doctrine of free will,’ because those arguments are logically indefensible.

If I logically and evidentially have little cause to accept the notion of a Supreme Being, or Power, or Tao, or Force, what reason do I have to believe in, and thus fear that Power’s hell? Not very much at present.

Even if hell does exist, what if it’s not like how it’s described? What if hell, and not heaven, is were you really want to go? What if hell is were all the fun, interesting people go when they pass on? What if hell totally rocks? There is just as much evidence in favor of this as any other concept of hell, so why not?

Well, I imagine perhaps one of three things will happen to me upon my death: I might enter an eternal, dreamless sleep; I could wind up in someone’s version of an afterlife, good or bad(or maybe good and bad); or, I could be reincarnated as something better or worse than I am now…

The only way to know for certain is to find out on that day I embark on a journey to the ultimate mystery and see for myself. That will likely be a trip with no return ticket. We shall see.